Set in Jewish ghetto of medieval Prague, the film begins with Rabbi Loew, the head of the city's Jewish community, reading the stars. Loew predicts disaster for his people and brings his assistant to inform the elders of the community. The next day the Holy Roman Emperor signs a royal decree declaring that the Jews must leave the city before the new moon. The Emperor sends the knight Florian to deliver the decree. Loew meanwhile begins to devise a way of defending the Jews.
Upon arriving at the ghetto, the arrogant Florian falls in love with Miriam, Loew's daughter, for whom his assistant shares affection. Loew talks Florian into reminding the Emperor that it is he who predicts disasters and tells the horoscopes of the Emperor, and requests an audience with him. Having courted with Miriam, Florian leaves. Loew begins to create a huge monster out of clay by praying with God first, the Golem, which he will bring to life to defend his people. Florian returns later with a request from the Emperor for Loew to attend the Rose Festival at the palace. He shares a romantic moment with Miriam while Loew reveals to his assistant that he has secretly created the Golem, and requires his assistance to animate it. In an elaborate magical procedure, Loew and the assistant summon the spirit Astaroth and compel him, as per the ancient texts, to say the magic word to bring life. This word is written on paper by Loew which is then enclosed in an amulet and inserted onto the Golem's chest. The Golem awakes. Loew's assistant then tames the Golem, and the Rabbi uses it as a household servant.
When Loew is summoned to the palace for the festival, he brings the Golem with him to impress the audience. Florian meanwhile slips away from the court to meet Miriam, whose house is being guarded by Loew's assistant under Loew's instruction. Back at the palace the court is both terrified and intrigued by the arrival of the Golem. Impressed, the Emperor asks to see more supernatural feats by Loew. Loew projects a magical screen showing the history of the Jews, instructing his audience not to make a noise. Upon the arrival of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, the court begins to laugh and the palace suddenly crumbles. As the building collapses around them, the Golem intervenes and props up the falling ceiling, saving the court. As a sign of gratitude the Emperor pardons the Jews and allows them to stay in the city.
Loew and the Golem return to the ghetto, spreading the news that the Jews are saved. Loew returns to his house and begins to notice erratic behaviour in the Golem. He reads that upcoming astrological movements will cause Astaroth to possess the Golem and attack its creators. Loew removes the amulet and is called down by his assistant to join in the celebrations in the street. As the community rejoices, the assistant goes to inform Miriam and bring her to the synagogue but finds her in bed with Florian. Devastated, he reanimates the Golem and orders it to remove Florian from the building. But the Golem, now under Astaroth's influence, literally does so by throwing Florian from the roof of the house, killing him. Horrified, the assistant and Miriam flee, but the Golem sets fire to the building and Miriam falls unconscious.
Loew's assistant rushes to the synagogue to alert the praying Jews of the disaster, but upon their arrival at Loew's house they find that it is burning and both the Golem and Miriam are missing. Despaired, the community begs Loew to save them from the rampaging Golem. Loew performs a spell that removes Astaroth from the Golem. Promptly, the Golem, who is wandering the ghetto causing destruction, leaves Miriam, whom he has been dragging by the hair through the streets, lying on a stone surface and heads towards the ghetto gate. He breaks the gate open and sees a group of girls playing. They all flee except for one, whom he picks up, having developed a docile nature following the removal of Astaroth. Out of curiosity she removes the amulet from the Golem. It drops her and collapses. Loew meanwhile finds Miriam, who awakes shortly after. Happily reunited, they are awkwardly joined by Loew's assistant, who informs him that the Jews are waiting for him by the gate. Loew having left, the assistant promises to Miriam that he will never tell anyone of her forbidden affair with Florian, and asks in return for forgiveness for his actions. The Jews meanwhile gather at the gate to find the dead Golem. Rejoicing and praying, they carry it back into the ghetto, the Star of David appearing on the screen as the film ends.Albert Steinrück as Rabbi Loew
Paul Wegener as The Golem
Lyda Salmonova as Miriam
Ernst Deutsch as Loew's assistant
Lothar Müthel as Knight Florian
Otto Gebühr as Emperor
Hans Stürm as Rabbi Jehuda
Max Kronert as The Gatekeeper
Greta Schröder as A Lady of the Court
Loni Nest as Little Girl
Fritz Feld as A Jester
Wegener had been unhappy with his previous attempt to tell the Golem story (Der Golem, 1915) due to compromises he had to make during its production. This second attempt is meant to more directly convey the legend as he heard it told in Prague while he was filming The Student of Prague (1913).
Architect Hans Poelzig designed the sets, a reproduction of the medieval Jewish ghetto of Prague. He designed them specifically to be filmed, creating highly expressionist imagery. The cinematography of Karl Freund, in collaboration with Poelzig and Wegener, is cited as one of the most outstanding examples of German Expressionism.
The Golem has been released many times by different distributors over the years. It was first released on DVD by Elite on January 18, 2000 as a part of its two-disk "Masterworks of the German Horror Cinema". The film was later released the following year by Dark on October 1, 2001. Sling Shot released the film on October 16, that same year, as a triple feature alongside F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu, and The Last Laugh. It was released several times the following year in 2002 by Alpha Video and Kino International, the latter of which released the film as both a single feature and a part of a four-disk multi feature set. Alpha Video would later re-release the film both in 2003 and in 2008 as a part of two multi-feature sets. Eureka and Film Baby would release the film as a single feature in 2005 and 2008 respectively. It was later released by The Bureau on March 15, 2011 titled "Black Francis: The Golem". It was last released as Der Golem by VFN on July 15, 2015.
Critical reception for The Golem upon its initial release was positive. New York Times in their 1921 review on the film praised the film's "exceptional acting" and "expressive settings", the latter of which was compared to Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer's landmark film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari which had been released a year prior to Wegener's film.
Film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported an approval rating of 100%, based on 8 reviews, with a rating average of 7.9/10. Film critic Leonard Maltin gave the film 3 1/2 out of a possible 4 stars, calling it "[a] Chilling, visually dazzling story of the supernatural, based on a famous Jewish folktale of the 16th century" and "[A] classic of German Expressionist cinema". Maltin also noted the film as a forerunner to the 1931 film adaption of Frankenstein. The film was presented at the Star and Shadow cinema in 2014 as part of the British Film Institute's Gothic season. This screening featured a new unique live soundtrack which was the result of a collaboration between Noize Choir and Wax Magnetic. The Castle, Newcastle screened the film in 2016, again with a live soundtrack from Noize Choir, this time accompanied by artists Mariam Rezaei and Adam Denton from the Old Police House. The film is listed in 101 Horror Films You Must See Before You Die, a spin-off of 1001 Films You Must See Before You Die, which the authors called "a classic of German expressionist cinema".